Making Space for the Informal
I had a conversation with long-time friend and mentor Vishwanath, aka Zen Rainman, who is also a water and sanitation expert. He has extensive experience in working with communities and government partners to enable development through localised solutions. We felt that a conversation with him about his thoughts around the relevance of toolkits could be useful to add to this discussion.
Our conversation was long and rambling and I have tried my best to synthesise that into specific points that can elicit further discussion here.
Z: The toolkit phenomenon is not new, it repeats itself almost once every 12 years. The first I got excited about was the Whole Earth Catalog in the 70s/80s. It was eclectic and covered everything from farming to cattle rearing. But one has to also consider societal aspects here. American society is very hands on and people do things on their own. They are looking for toolkits that they can action; also because they have access to tools that can make these toolkits actionable. The case is similar in Europe as well. However, in India we don’t usually ‘do’ things ourselves. We love latching on to ideas theoretically, but don’t like to do things themselves. Those who actually do things, don’t have access to toolkits, or at least not in formats that make sense to them. For e.g.; the plumber who does rainwater harvesting might not be able to grasp and implement toolkit information. The toolkit itself is usually with the person who is commissioning the project, but does nothing.
So the initial consideration should be around how we can localise. Language is the obvious one here, but that is not enough. We have to understand that the same folks who are grappling with ideas intellectually are also the ones who take to toolkits the most. The ones who do things on the ground aren’t the ‘reading’ types; they come from an experience base and are looking to expand first-hand experience based knowledge.
B: So isn’t that the dilemma with toolkits? Right now they are meant to enable practitioners with actionable solutions, but are often inaccessible to these audiences.
Z: Then we need to rethink formats as well. The old way was to think of it in written form, but with the internet we have mediums like youtube. I have put up several instructional videos about rainwater harvesting. I am not sure who consumes it. The questions always come from the west, but who sees and uses these videos in India. A part of putting knowledge and experience out there is to do just that and not worry about measuring usage and feedback too much. At the end of the day, a toolkit is also about understanding the issues and solutions for yourself in the simplest possible fashion. The audience is secondary in some sense, it has to primarily be an inward quest.
B: So we have been talking about individuals. How do you think toolkits could be of relevance to organizations/institutions?
Z: I feel like even within groups, one will end up engaging with individuals. Who are committed to persevere and create change. When there is a new idea, there is also intellectual curiosity about it. Once it has settled in and become robust, ironically there isn’t enough energy around it. The idea of figuring something out and then replicating it ad nauseous without experimenting further does not work for a ‘creative’ individual. They move on to newer ideas and it is the same with institutions as well; there is always a quest for new ideas.
There is also the question of what our quest for results reveal. We always want 100% and even beyond 100%. Realistically even a 50% strike rate is good and 65% is very good. Our angst comes from the remaining 35% not working. We are never happy with understanding why whatever worked did work. But we need to ask what the possible success rates are in our quest for 100% replicability, given the structures and realities around actual implementation.
And the other point around this is when we think of institutions like the government who follow the template to a T. Is that appropriate? For e.g. let us take the current proliferation of single pit toilets across the country. A template was created and the government followed that endlessly in a linear fashion without adapting around feedback loops. So conversations are intrinsic parts of a toolkit, to enable the seeds of a solution to be built on progressively.
My personal belief is that everything has to be localised, one off experiences. I cannot take your experience in a specific geographical, socio-political locale and try to make sense of it in another. It is your story, not mine. Even if you share your problems and failures they aren’t mine. My ego will come in the way of formally acknowledging it. So let us share these stories of success and failure, but lets do it subtly without stamping ownership all over it. Noone wants to take on something that is overtly published as belonging to a specific entity. It has to be sufficiently open to allow for further adoption.
Then there is the question of recommending solutions. How can we push a solution without having direct experience in a specific context? We could ask a natural farmer to answer a few questions about how to do natural, zero-input farming, but what works on his farm will not work on others. Also, the ones who are asking the questions will never farm themselves, instead they will ask the questions and pretend to be an expert. There are no generic solutions. There has to be localisation of knowledge, inputs and experience.
B: So is there an issue in the way we frame toolkits in the first place? Should it be less about solutions, since they can’t be so easily transmitted across contexts, but should it be about approaches and process.
Z: Large development funders have a vested interest in pushing toolkits, because the toolkits themselves are pushing standards and specific formal solutions are imposed. Can we start the toolkit conversation by saying — Can we help you with your problems? How can we build toolkits not on standards, but on incremental improvements? How do we account for the informal? How do we involve all kinds of stakeholders as solution-providers. So yes, toolkits by their very nature seek to formalise and replicate but we can reframe this as well. Toolkits need to instead provide options and seek to shift legitimacy from the ‘experts’ to the local stakeholders who need to be in charge of the narrative. Toolkits need to be unshackled from the cage of high intellectualisation (not just in the manifest, but also in the initial framing of the philosophical construct for it).
B: We should be working on a 100, 1000, 5000 small projects where we re-emphasize the local and the informal and then gradually begin to see if there are patterns emerging. And we also need to allow for the process to inform the subject and vice versa.
Z: I agree. Toolkits currently, enable the build up of certain edifices, that are largely donor driven. Instead toolkits need to convey and build on the idea that change requires persistence and specific inputs. They need to convey difficulties and rationale, in order to deepen the dialogue in the community.
B: So how can we enable these conversations? Should toolkits be reframed to incorporate unique conversations, which in some sense embodies the opposite of standardization.
Z: The conversation is crucial. Even with the government, the conversation is not with an institution, but with individuals within, in a trusting comfort zone that in non-threatening and imbued with a sense of inquiry. And this can only be informal. The moment this is formalised it loses its transformative power. So we need to keep asking ourselves how we can keep these informal networks and conversations alive.
Also real field experience cannot be substituted by standardised frameworks and metrics. So we need to question toolkits when they attempt to force measurement and frameworks. The personal, localised approach is a lot more difficult and toolkits do not address or imbibe these now. However, we need to challenge ourselves to build toolkits that focus on the informal, the local and the conversational.